Page last updated at 18:20 GMT, Friday, 12 March 2010

Why we like tough guys in politics

Brown, Clegg, Cameron


An imaginary telephone call and a real-life ruler show us that although they shouldn't be bullies, our leaders should exemplify power under control, writes Simon Schama as he joins the Point of View strand.

Now here's a turn-up for the books. Of late the papers, especially those not enthusiastic about the prospect of Gordon Brown prolonging his tenure in Downing Street, have been reporting rough handling of staff at Number 10.

Downing Street
Behind closed doors

A book by the political journalist Andrew Rawnsley, and an insider memoir by Suzie Mackenzie, paint the same picture - and it isn't pretty.

The imposing figure of the ex-rugby playing PM, has, it seems, been putting the heat on underlings. Losing it. Barging his way through the door. Perhaps shaking his fist? Or pounding it on the cabinet table?

Prime ministerial brows have beetled. The soft Scottish baritone has been raised to the kind of bloodcurdling yell last heard coming from the clan frontline behind William Wallace.

"Cripes!" they'll be saying south of the border, "watch out for the claymore and mind the sgian dubh!"

But here's the funny thing. During the time that these reports of Godzilla running amok in Whitehall were splashing over the newsprint, the Prime Minister's poll ratings actually went up. Ditto those of his party.

Who to trust among the candidates for the top job, to get the battered and broken economy on its feet again? No, not Mr New Man with his bike and nice hair. But the Bear from the Lair.

Bring on the tough love, we seem to be saying. Beat us daddy, four to the bar. The more the newspapers went on about the Prime Minister's brutishness, the speedier the Conservatives' once formidable lead over New Labour evaporated.

Simon Schama
A Point of View, with Simon Schama, is on Fridays on Radio 4 at 2050 GMT and repeated Sundays, 0850 GMT
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If only someone could find evidence that Gordon Brown chewed on live gerbils with his tea, or kicked holes in the walls of the Cabinet Room, he'd be home and dry in the election.

Which makes me wonder whether or not these reports of nastiness in high places don't have the fingerprints of propaganda geniuses all over them? Could it possibly have gone like this, I wonder...?

"Brrring brring... Hullo, Mandy? Alistair here. Listen, I hear there are calls for the PM to play nicey-nicey, if he's to have even a snowball's, against Dave?

"Cut the scowling and growling right out. Lots of wee bairn kissing. Intensive retraining in smile-technique... And so forth. No, no, Mandy, don't agree with me for god's sake. You know what I think? Codswallop."

I interrupt this speculation to alert you to the possibility that you might just conceivably have read a stronger term, but this is for families, so "codswallop" it will remain. But if you find "piffle" or even "balderdash" more authentic, then be my guest.

"Call me a hardened cynic. But..."

"No Alistair, surely not!"

Born in London in 1945
Historian and art historian, now a professor at Columbia University
Writes for The New Yorker
Presenter of 2000's A History of Britain in 2000, 2006's The Power Of Art and The American Future: A History for BBC

"As I was trying to say, call me Machiavelli but what I think the people want, when they get a close look at New Man for PM, is a bit of the Old Man. It's tough out there and no-one trusts a Sauvignon sipper when the going gets rough."

"You're a granny, you're worried about your pension or the NHS. Who do you think knows what it's like on a wet morning in Macclesfield waiting for the bus? Smoothie-chops or the Incredible Hulk?"

"If I catch your drift, Alistair - and of course I may be attributing low tactics to you when none could possibly be intended, and if so I implore your forgiveness on bended knee - are you suggesting that Gordon turn on the rough stuff?"

"Aren't we the clever clogs? Been at the macchiato again have we? Not a million miles away from what I have in mind - if we want to win the election, that is."

"What mood do you think the people who've taken a walloping from the, erm, downturn, are in anyway? Horrible that's what. They want to yell and shout, and throw plates - at the dog.

"But they're British remember, and we don't do that. Some clumsy great berk stamps on our feet getting on the train and WE say 'oh.. terribly sorry'. Now what the people are waiting for is someone who'll have a bit of bad temper on their behalf."

"I see. The tantrum tactic. Throw a wobbly, put the boot in selected rear ends now and again, and the voters will feel that you care. Very good."

"Only problem, dear Alistair, is you know Gordon. He doesn't really do raving lunatic for Britain. Not his style."

Campbell and Mandelson
Imagining the plotters plotting

"Well, time he learned some bad manners. Throw his weight around a bit. Hell, I could give him a few lessons."

"But dear Alistair, maybe you don't need to. Maybe, just maybe, there are those out there who feel they have been handled by the PM with - shall we say - something less than kid gloves? And perhaps, they might like to vent a little. For the benefit of the public...?"

"You wicked old..."

"Now, now Alistair. Pot calling the kettle macchiato I think."

"Right, you've outdone yourself. Let me at it. It's LEAK time. The Campbell is coming, tra-la tra-la. See you, bad boy."

"Cheery by, tough stuff. A pleasure doing business with you as always."

It couldn't have been like that could it, fellow-voters? Nah. Perish the thought?

But even if it wasn't, the "boo-hoo he's such a bully, treats people like dirt" tactic of his opponents has misfired.

Biffer, with a heart

A quick shufti across the pond would have told those in command and control at the editor's desk as much. For the more Barack Obama has tried to deploy sweet reason, make up to the Bad Guys, whether in Tehran or the Republican party, the more they have greeted his overtures with gobs of spit in the eye.

Obama reaches out, urges the divided nation to come together in a healing national cuddle, and the perception is that he's too soft for the job. He seems never to want to sack anyone lest it seem evidence of panic. But a touch of head rolling and he would be seen as The Man.

Barack Obama
Too soft?

Namby-pamby is the kiss of electoral death. It would be nice - I guess - if politics were all about an end to name-calling, a ban on manoeuvres that resemble a swift kick in the soft tissue, and were just a philosophy seminar on, you know, the Right Thing to Do for the Country - with issues, thrashed out sportingly with no low blows between parties concerned.

Yes and it would also be nice if England were a shoo-in for the World Cup, Kurt Cobain came out of hiding to say there's been a terrible mistake, and caviar was 5p a kilo.

But guess what, people, it ain't so. Politics is about biffs and bashes as much as deeply informed policy positions.

Of course we want our biffers and our bashers to be decent human beings, lest they make biffing and bashing the entire point of their politics as authoritarian monsters of violence and cruelty have been wont to do from Caligula to Pol Pot.

I am not recommending as model the Tsars of Russia, Ivan the Terrible, and Peter the Great, for whom smashing the skulls of their sons was a job description if they were to hack it in Muscovy.

No, what I'm after is an image that projects power under self-control.

And we have exactly that image. Next time you're in Rome - and you know that's where you want to be, isn't it? - just climb the steps of the Capitoline Hill.

There on a terrace designed by Michelangelo - who knew a thing about the creative deployment of hot temper - is the equestrian statue of the first and last true philosopher-prince.

Emperor Marcus Aurelius, he of the maxims and sayings, too many of which come down to "take cold showers" and "avoid the paparazzi and red carpets" for my liking, but when it came to powerful self-control, no-one came close.

Marcus Aurelius statue
Model of leadership? Marcus Aurelius stands guard in Rome

(Don't be fooled by Richard Harris in Gladiator who looked and sounded as though he were the oldest living fugitive from a Glastonbury Festival.)

There sits the emperor mounted on his mighty steed. The war-horse's front legs are lifted in the levade, a tricky dressage move which you won't see at your local gymkhana.

Does the emperor unceremoniously slide backwards off the rump? The hell he does. No - he holds the reins with just one hand. Wow. Talk about tough-guy composure, not to mention all-time muscular control.

Yes, I know that he presided over the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire and sitting upright in the saddle on a frisky mount didn't help with the Goths and Huns. But, he slowed them down.

It took another few centuries before the empire bit the dust. That would do for a Prime Minister, wouldn't it?

So never mind about the telly debates. Ostler, bring me a trio of mounts - celerrime if you please. Let's get Dave and Gordon and Nick up on their high horses, take a look at their form, and then we'll be able to judge how they can take the fences when the going is sticky.

Uh-oh, Gordon seems to be giving his mount what-for with the whip and spurs as he rounds the bend. HELP - someone call the RSPCA!

Below is a selection of your comments.

Bill Clinton was far and away the best West based leader over the last 50 years. Smart beats tough every time, and makes it look easy.
Ady, edinburgh

Schama pens a hymn to the notion that dominance, especially male dominance, is natural and inevitable. His disingenuous humour leaves out that dominance, whether in politicians or elsewhere, has consequences for its victims. Such violence touches us when we hear about it, how come we don't see that it is very often the outcome of the "might is right" attitudes that Schama applauds?
Denis Postle, London, UK

When that "Gordon is a bully" story broke last month my immediate reaction was that the Labour Party must have spun it. They didn't of course but I was astonished when the Tories decided to make something of it, which seemed an amateurish mistake. Everybody likes strong leaders although there are degrees of strength that different nations seem to prefer. The Russians for example just love to be kicked about like a football where as the Brits prefer a more subtle strength. But certainly more Punch than Judy. A very well observed piece.
Francis Power, London, UK

According to the British Unwritten Constitution, the Prime Minister is an elected civil servant, not a "leader". And failure to control his temper by a British civil servant is utterly un-British - they are supposed to be gentlemen, not some hysterical soap-opera characters. Have you forgotten the stiff upper lip? Or, "if you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs ..."? If a prime minister cannot control his temper, or has to throw tantrums to impose his authority on junior members of his staff, then is he fit to govern a country?
HDQ, Birmingham, UK

There's a world of difference between tough love and bullying. Trouble is, many people mistake one for the other. People hate being ruled by a wimp. They want collegiality to reach the best decision and guts to enforce it. Bullying is a sign of insecurity, weakness and low self-esteem. Guts to make and execute a decision is courage and leadership.
John Bittleston, Singapore

Much of this reads like Finnegan's Wake.
John Wallace, Stirling

Saatchi and Saatchi themselves could not have devised a more ingenious party political broadcast on the behalf of Gordon Brown than Schama's talk. Strange but revealing to have this broadcast in the Point of View strand in the run up to a general election.
RE Osborne, Windsor

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